Plan to Immediately Release Orcas in Srednyaya Bay Should Not Be Adopted

May 17, 2019

Plan to Immediately Release Orcas in Srednyaya Bay Should Not Be Adopted

RABIN_09843 GOV JMC ORCAS in P3_0.jpg

Photo courtesy of Harry Rabin

A new plan, announced by Russian authorities on May 15th, calls for the 10 orcas being held at the “whale jail” in Russia to be released directly into the open ocean adjacent to their sea pens by late May/early June. (It does not apply to the 87 belugas.)

The following press release states that we do not support such a plan for the orcas and could not participate in it. Instead, we call on the government to adopt the comprehensive rehabilitation and re-adaptation plan for the orcas and belugas, which offers the best chances for their successful re-introduction to life in the wild.
A PDF copy of this press release, in Russian and English, can be accessed here.

Jean-Michel Cousteau Urges Government of Russian Federation to
Reconsider Plan for Release of Orcas Held in Srednyaya Bay

Released in Russia on May 17, 2019

The Jean-Michel Cousteau/Whale Sanctuary Project international team calls on the Russian authorities to re-evaluate the plan to release the orcas in Srednyaya Bay.

The plan announced on Wednesday May 15, 2019, to release the 10 orcas from the holding facility directly into Srednyaya Bay by late May/early June does not take into account the recommendations of our international team of marine mammal specialists, nor does it comply with the optimal release option agreed to by the Working Group of the VNIRO Consilium for adaptation/re-adaptation of orcas and belugas that met on May 14.

“It puts the well-being of these orcas at undue risk and compromises their long-term survival,” Cousteau said. “We cannot support or participate in this plan.”

The most important consideration in the release plan should be the well-being of the orcas and belugas and their long-term survival. The plan must provide for their highest likelihood for successful social reintegration and the highest likelihood of matching the animals with the best habitat for foraging. Returning these orcas and belugas to locations near where they were captured most effectively meets these objectives.

Releasing the orcas in Srednyaya Bay as suggested during a briefing held at the Ministry of Natural Resources on May 15 meets none of these success criteria. And, if done in the short timeline outlined, the plan does not allow sufficient time to re-condition the orcas’ behavior from captivity for life in the wild. Among the risks of this release plan are that the orcas:

  • Will not have proper diagnostics and treatment of the skin lesions they currently exhibit;
  • May introduce invasive pathogens to the environment;
  • Will return to the Srednyaya facility for food;
  • Will become a nuisance to local boaters, fishermen and the public by stealing fish from and getting caught in nets, begging for food, and approaching boats;
  • Will be unsuccessful in re-adapting to the open ocean and may not survive.

A comprehensive plan for the rehabilitation and re-adaptation of the orcas and belugas offers their best chances for successful re-introduction to life in the wild and will address the risks listed above. To maximize opportunities for successful release, the orcas must go through a full rehabilitation plan that includes sufficient time for:

  • Complete health assessments and diagnostic tests of each animal, including sampling to identify pathogens and comprehensive morphometrics;
  • Treatment of all treatable conditions – such as skin fungal and bacterial infections;
  • Improvement of the physical conditioning of the orcas by increasing their pen size to enable better opportunity for exercise;
  • Strengthening existing family groupings of orcas by reconfiguring the orcas into pens based on associations in capture records;
  • Minimizing human contact by:
    • Disassociating food from people by deploying remote feeding devices and feeding varying amounts (whilst ensuring that the full ‘food base’ for each animal is given) and varying the times of deployment. These modifications all begin to simulate the animals’ natural rhythms and help stimulate the animals’ cognitive abilities;
    • Discontinuing any training and human interaction beyond what is medically necessary for evaluation, treatment and appropriate rehabilitation;
  • Decreasing surface-oriented behavior by increased underwater stimulus using enriching natural sources of stimulus, such as seaweed, water flow, bubbles, etc.;
  • Final health assessment on all animals prior to release into the wild, to mitigate the potential for the orcas and belugas currently held in Srednyaya Bay to introduce pathogens to the wild population.

Although this rehabilitation program cannot be accomplished in the limited time-frame outlined in the May 15 briefing, it can be initiated immediately while, simultaneously, plans can be made to return these orcas and belugas to locations near where they were captured, where there are associated orcas and belugas, and where there are appropriate and available food sources. We believe that a responsible and thorough release plan can be implemented for both orcas and belugas prior to winter.

Cousteau said his team remains committed to providing expertise and assistance to facilitate a responsible rehabilitation and release program, and to help mobilize international resources should such assistance be needed.

“I believe Russians and people throughout the world will support such a plan,” Cousteau said. “But we cannot support or participate in a release plan that jeopardizes the health, welfare and survivability of these animals.”

Press contacts:

English language:
Charles Vinick
+1-805-252-5421 (WhatsApp)

Russian language:
Grigory Tsidulko
+7-910-441-9841 (WhatsApp)

The Whale Sanctuary Project is supporting this mission and has created a special fundraising campaign to meet the costs of this initial visit. Your tax-deductible donations to this fund are greatly appreciated. Please click here.

You can also make donations to Ocean Futures Society to support this mission and our ongoing efforts in spreading awareness about marine mammals in captivity. Please click here.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or sign up to receive our newsletters to receive regular updates.